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Mini Hatch E

Driven November 2008

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Got caught in traffic in the Electric Mini. My test drive got delayed and ended up in rush hour in downtown Los Angeles. Reason? The guy before me had the car too long. This was Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ah yes, the Governator of California. Here in LA, interest in this car is running off-the-scale high.

They love anything new, anything green, anything stylish, anything expensive, anything exclusive. The Mini E is all of those. For a start you can’t even buy it. You lease it, at a rate of $850 (£570) a month. Which is nearly three times the lease rate on a normal Cooper.

And only 250 will be available in California. With another 250 in New York and neighbouring New Jersey. And none anywhere else. Yet the website has had 10,000 enquiries.

It’s a regular Mini, with no engine and no back seat. Instead, under the hood is a lot of electronics plus the motor. In place of the back seat, a colossal lithium-ion battery. It takes three hours to recharge using a special high-amperage charger: a normal mains socket takes overnight. Fully charged, it’ll go about 120 miles.

On the outside, there are a load of stickers, because that’s the only way people know you’ve got one. There are no other changes. Even the fuel filler flap stays. But behind it is the charger socket.

Inside, the dials are different. Instead of the rev-counter, you get a charge indicator. The trip computer gives range read-outs and instead of a fuel gauge there’s a power gauge. There’s no clutch of course, as there’s only one gear.

So you press the starter button and the dash light up and the aircon starts. Nothing else but silence. Press the accelerator and away you go. Smartly. 0-60 acceleration is just eight seconds, and there’s loads of vim from a step-off. The traction control is really busy.

Top speed is just 95mph, but up to dual-carriageway speeds there’s plenty of acceleration, and you never lose time to gearchanges.

The performance is anough to get noticeable torque steer actually.

It stays eerily quiet too – just the noise of wind and tyres measures your progress.

The steering is sharp and cornering always level because the suspension has been stiffened to suit the weight of the battery. But it doesn’t disguise it fully: this Mini simply doesn’t quite feel as agile as the ones with real engines.

Back right off the throttle and the car slows hard. You seldom need the brakes. That’s the effect of regenerative braking, which switches the motor into a generator, to reclaim the energy from slowing down to re-charge the battery. Better than wasting it as heat in the brakes.

So will those 500 people be able to live with it? Easily. If they’re that rich they’ll have other cars for long journeys. Then the Mini will be a great commuter car.

In fact most people who buy Minis have access to another bigger car. And have a garage where they can charge up the Mini’s battery. Whereas people who drive, say, Fiestas, are more likely to be one-car households and 120 miles range simply wouldn’t do. So if the electric car industry takes off, and the cost of batteries comes down (it will) then the Mini is a good car to electrify.

Right now, of course, the sums don’t add up. Yes the electricity to charge the battery is far cheaper than the three gallons of fuel you’d need to go the same distance. But that’s not a big consideration in the land where fuel is $2 a gallon and the car is $850 a month.

Paul Horrell

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